Coming off of a rousing victory over Modesto Christian on Friday, the St. Mary’s boys’ basketball team went into the weekend portion of the Cal Basketball Team Camp with hig spirits. But after an easy win over outmanned Mater Dei, the Panthers came crashing back down to earth.
Going up against Northgate in the first round of the 16-team tournament that ended the camp, the Panthers were the favorites. Even without sophomore DeMarcus Nelson, who injured his knee and back on Friday, St. Mary’s took a quick 9-0 lead in the opening minutes. But Northgate’s 3-2 zone slowed the Panther attack, forcing point guard DeShawn Freeman to dish the ball by denying him penetration, and the Northgate shooters came alive.
Without Nelson, the Panthers’ pressing defense was a step slow in their second game of the day, leading to several easy layups for the Mustangs. When their wing shooters got hot late in the first half, the Panthers found themselves down by six at halftime.
It got worse in the second half, as Northgate continued to get open looks as the Panthers scrambled around on defense. They extended their lead to 17 with six minutes to go, and looked assured of a big upset win. Freeman took things into his own hands in the closing minutes, blowing by the defense for several acrobatic layups. But in the end, the best St. Mary’s could do was close the gap to six points with less than a minute remaining.
“We looked really slow out there today,” St. Mary’s head coach Jose Caraballo said after the loss. “I’m not sure we deserve to win tonight if we play like we just did.”
But the Panthers still had an inspired effort left in them to close Saturday’s action. They were up against BSAL rival Salesian, who had fallen in overtime to Riordan (San Francisco). The Panthers beat Salesian three times last season, and Chieftan star John Winston plays on the Oakland Soldiers with Freeman, Nelson and St. Mary’s sharpshooter John Sharper, so the teams are very familiar with each other.
Playing without Nelson and center Simon Knight, who is out for the summer following knee surgery, Freeman and Sharper dominated, leading their team to an eight-point victory in their third game of the day.
The Panthers didn’t have much rest ahead, however, as the win over Salesian earned them a spot in Sunday’s consolation final four. Facing Bishop O’Dowd, St. Mary’s once again showed why Caraballo feels they are ready to take on the top teams in the state with a dominating 20-point win.
“This tournament is a good test for us to prove we’re ready to take on the D-1 level schools,” Freeman said. “We’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”